Hands Off My Cell Phone

by on July 16, 2005

I disagree with James on cell phone bans. First of all, as one of his commenters point out, cell phones are not the only distracting thing in the car. They’re probably not even the most distracting. People eat, yell at their kids, change the station on the radio, apply make-up, and do all manner of other distracting things in the car. It’s not at all clear to me why we should single out cell phones for special treatment.

Secondly, context matters. If I’m zipping along in the left lane of an almost-empty freeway, being on my cell phone poses pretty minimal risk of accident. Likewise, if I’m in a residential area cruising along at 5 MPH (say, I’m almost to a friend’s house and calling the friend for directions) my chances of getting in an accident are likewise pretty low. And anyway, the damage will be minimal if I hit something at 5 MPH. So no, you shouldn’t be on the phone while changing lanes in rush hour traffic. But not all cell phone use in cars is bad.

Thirdly, is that really the best use of police resources? Even if the study is right, and cell phone use is killing people, it’s not at all clear that a ban would do much to deter cell phone use. It’s not very easy to tell who’s using a cell phone from outside, and there aren’t nearly enough police officers to enforce a ban effectively. A lot of people will just ignore the ban, on the (reasonable) assumption that they’re unlikely to be caught. I mean, really, has mandatory seat belt laws increased seatbelt use?

Finally, the study found that handsfree phones are just as distracting as normal phones. I don’t find this surprising at all. DC has a cell phone ban, and so I tried to use my hands free kit as often as possible. When my phone rings, I have to fish my phone out of my pocket, fish the handsfree kit out of the ash tray, plug the receiver into the phone, put the reciever into my ear (sometimes it falls out and I have to do it again) and then find a place to set the phone for the duration of the call. Since my cell phone calls are usually quite short, I think I’m a lot less dangerous having a phone to my ear for 30 seconds than spending 15 second fiddling around with things on my lap while the phone is ringing.

Bottom line: the police have better things to worry about.

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